Ricky Nelson was a teen pop hero for years and one of the most televised musicians of his age.
While many people are aware of the odd circumstances surrounding his death, few are aware of how a last-minute decision saved the lives of his two young boys.
Ricky Nelson was born Eric Hilliard Nelson on May 8, 1940 in Teaneck, New Jersey. His parents, Ozzie Nelson and Harriet Hilliard Nelson, were well-known for their hit sitcom “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.”
The Nelson’s comedy lasted sixteen years, a record in sitcom history. Ricky and his older brother, David, joined the show’s cast when they were about 8 and 10 years old, respectively.
Ricky attended Gardner Street Public School throughout this time, finally graduating from Hollywood High School. He had an aversion to school, which irritated his father, who wanted Ricky to go to college.
By the time he reached the legal age for college, he was already earning more than most established adults. His annual earnings were already above $100,000, therefore he didn’t require a college education.
Ricky appeared in the episode “Ricky, the Drummer” of his family’s show when he was 17 years old. “I’m Walking,” a song he played on that show, was recorded and released as his first single. It immediately rose to number four on Billboard’s Best Sellers list.
His fame skyrocketed, allowing him to frequently debut music on his parents’ show before releasing songs as singles to the general audience. Hits included “Garden Party,” “It’s Late,” “Fools Rush In,” “For You,” “Poor Little Fool,” and “Travelin’ Man.”
Rickey began dating Kristin Harmon in 1961. Kristin came from a similar upbringing, having been reared in Hollywood. Furthermore, her family and the Nelsons were good friends.
They married in April 1963. They had four children: Sam Hilliard Nelson, twins Matthew Gray Nelson and Gunnar Eric Nelson, and actress Tracy Kristine Nelson.
Ricky’s prominence grew during the 1960s as he constantly released Top 40 hits. His popular music was in the rising rock n’ roll genre, which led to several tours for him throughout the years.
Unfortunately, he died unexpectedly and mysteriously on one of these tours.
Ricky was known to despise traveling, despite the fact that he was had to fly frequently for tours and promotions. He apparently even went to psychotherapy sessions in order to feel better on flights so that he could continue his job and meet his admirers.
Nelson and his boys, Matthew and Gunnar, were meant to go to Dallas together for Ricky’s New Year’s Eve performance. However, Gunnar stated: “We were supposed to be on the plane on that trip. Our dad called us right before we were supposed to come down to Alabama and meet him and fly with him to the New Year’s show in Dallas.”
A few days before their scheduled departure, Ricky called his sons to inform them that they would not be flying to Dallas together.
Ricky’s flight had some reported engine difficulties a few days before the departure.
Ricky boarded the DC-3 plane in Alabama without his two sons, and as the plane approached its destination, the cabin filled with smoke. Ricky and the other passengers were killed in the fire, but the pilot was able to safely land the jet in Texas.
The cause of the plane fire remains unknown thirty years later. Rumors about Ricky doing cocaine with his then-girlfriend Helen Blaine circulated.
Ricky’s brother David adamantly dismisses this possibility, claiming that his brother never used cocaine. Ricky’s manager, Greg McDonald, later stated that Ricky and Helen were both sleeping in the cottage when the fire started.
Tracy Nelson, Ricky’s daughter, later told Larry King that she believes the tragedy was caused by a technical problem.
Tracy added that the plane, also known as the “Flying Bus” because to its slow speed, had been known to have problems with its gasoline heater, which might have easily resulted in an unintentional fire.
While the origin of the fire is still unknown thirty years later, Ricky Nelson’s foresight clearly helped to prevent an even worse family tragedy.
Ricky’s twin kids, Matthew and Gunnar, went on to have great music careers in memory of their father. Matthew says: “It’s an ongoing labor of love, an open letter to our dad, who was our best friend.”
Ricky, may you rest in peace!
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